Thursday, June 27, 2013

Gluten Free on a Budget: How to Save Money & Eat Well: The Basics

When switching to a gluten free diet, everything can be a bit overwhelming.  When we first had to cut gluten (and later dairy) from my son’s diet when he was just 18 months old, I remember feeling confused, and at times a bit desperate.  My first instinct was to find substitutes for everything that was suddenly off limits.  Then I noticed how out of control my grocery bill was getting.  I knew I needed a new approach.  I started making some changes and getting my shopping list under control.  Now I hope to help others struggling with some of the same issues.

I’m embarking on a series of posts about going gluten free on a budget to help others who are struggling with keeping their food expenses manageable.  Today’s post deals with just the basics: how to get started, and some simple tips for saving money on your grocery bill. 

 1- Keep Track of Spending: You can’t cut out what you don’t know you’re spending.  This step is probably the least fun of all, but I think it’s one of the most important.  How much do you spend on groceries per week, and how much of that is specifically on specialty gluten free items?  How many times do you go out to pick up something you forgot?  Here’s my suggestion: For at least two weeks (though I would suggest a month) keep track of your food bill.  Start specifically with groceries, omitting fast food, etc. for the time being.  How much do you spend overall, and how much of that is on gluten free specialty items? 
Tip: To make this part of the process easier, when shopping, put specialty items through the register in one big group at the end, so they’re easier to find on the bill.  This also helps if you’re filing for a tax refund at the end of the year. 

 2- Set a Goal & Make a Budget: How much do you want to spend on groceries?  How much are you overspending on average compared to your ideal bill?  Take a look at those receipts again, and see where you can cut right off the top.  Packaged gluten free food costs on average more than 200 times their gluten filled counterparts.  I know that when I started shopping gluten free, I was buying my son GF cookies each week, until I realized that I didn’t buy him cookies every week before going gluten free. Don’t just stop at the gluten free foods, take a look overall. The idea here isn’t to cut to the bone, it’s to cut out the stuff that you won’t really miss.  Making a budget and knowing what you can afford to spend on groceries is a great first step, and can sometimes be the little push needed to make some changes.   
Tip: Remember, this is a process. If you are overspending by a lot, you might not be able to comfortably cut it all down to size at once.  Set small goals: Maybe you want to cut $25 a week.  That’s $100 saved over the course of a month.  A great first step forward.

3- Check Flyers & Coupons and Shop All at Once:  Every Thursday we get a paper with all the flyers for the week.  This is why I grocery shop either Thursday night or Friday.  Sometimes I have to go and pick something up during the week, but I try to keep that to a minimum.  The more you shop, the more you spend.  In case you’re wondering, I don’t shop at ten different stores.  I shop at two: One with generally lower prices overall, and another that carries certain items the first does not.  I check the flyers for those two stores and make note of the sales.  That doesn’t mean I run out and buy ten packs of whatever’s on sale, but it does mean that if chicken’s on sale, there will probably be a few chicken dishes on the menu plan that week.  I ignore sale items of things that I don’t use, and only buy in bulk if it’s a buy one get one free type deal.
Tip: Don’t get sucked in to buying something just because it’s on sale. If you wouldn’t buy it anyway, it’s not really a deal for you.    

4- Menu Plan for the Week & Shop with a List: If you’re a  "cook what you feel like in the moment” kind of person, this tip might take some getting used to.  The truth is that it takes some planning to have inexpensive but delicious gluten free meals on the table day in and day out.  Not planning ahead increases the chances that you’ll be serving super expensive prepackaged meals on a regular basis. I menu plan every week, for dinners mostly, so that I can write a proper grocery list and not just wander the aisles aimlessly picking up whatever looks good.  It has not only made my life easier during the week, but has also drastically cut down my grocery bill.   It takes about 30 minutes a week to scan the flyers, decide on meals, and make a grocery list (more at first, but practice makes perfect.)  I check flyers, and decide on five dinners for the week ahead.  Then I make a list of what I need for the meals, plus all the other basics I generally buy.  I use the list at the store and don’t buy on impulse. Weekends are usually for leftovers. 
Tip: Break your list into categories to help you really see what you’re actually buying. This will make things like prepackaged items really stand out.  The categories I use are: Dairy, Meat, Fruits & Vegetables, Frozen, Grocery (canned & dry goods, prepackaged snacks), Household (cleaning supplies, toilet paper, etc.) For meal ideas, check out my MENU PLANS and RECIPES tabs.   

5- Choose one area to makeover at a time:  Maybe buying gluten free cereals and bread products for breakfast takes up a lot of your budget.  Focus on overhauling breakfast for a few weeks.  Perhaps it’s all the snacks that cost too much.  Plan a week’s worth of healthy snacks before you shop.  Baby steps.  For more ideas, check my TIPS & TRICKS tab. 
Tip: Sometimes we think that if it comes from a package, it must be more convenient.  Not necessarily.  It doesn’t take very long to scramble an egg or grab a handful of grapes.  Focusing on one area at a time can take away some of the pressure and allow you to adjust to some new foods while still keeping most of your diet familiar.






  1. Some great tips here and not just for those on GF restrictions. Especially like your tip in #1 (group specialty items at the end of your check-out). This is a great idea. Will also work for anyone who runs a home-based business (i.e. daycare) and can deduct % of grocery bills at tax time.

  2. Nice post! I need to re-read and really look at my budget!